These experiences—such as the kidnapping of your child or the doctor’s prognosis of a quickly spreading, incurable cancer—have the force to fling your inner self into a morose state. And, when one of these dreaded experiences intrude, your underlying Christian interpretation, founded upon trust in a loving Lord who wields His power purposefully, begins to give way to questioning. God’s promises become mere words, too future-oriented to forestall doubt, even creeping bitterness. One dreaded experience on most everyone’s list is the unexpected death of one who had a unique place in our affections. The snatching away of a life that gives your own its purpose and joy, pushing you into a hazy, purgatory-like consciousness. There, you become obsessed with the “why” question rather than consider that you are being readied for something wonderful, even beyond what you could have imagined
Four days after her brother’s funeral, the puzzled statement Mary directed at Jesus was the same one that her sister had made moments earlier, “If you had been here . . .” Over these few days, her simple trust was thrown into relational vertigo. Why didn’t Jesus use His demonstrated power to spare her brother from death and keep her joy one that she loved? This Mary, the eager one who listened intently to Jesus’ Kingdom announcements, thought she knew Jesus’ heart. Had she not entered into a highly privileged relationship with One who had extended His authority to spare others from the heartbreaks of life? She thought that she had, that is, until an experience from her short-list stunned her soul, challenging the novice’s faith. An unexpected death has this powerful effect, binding the imagination as to what God may yet do.
On a two-hour car trip I sat along-side Newell, a ministry colleague who was experiencing the one thing I dread most, the death of one of his family. Two weeks earlier, on a Spring morning in 2006, I arrived at the office greeted by the news that one of his two daughters had been killed in a car accident while returning to her college residence. The news literally jolted my beating heart. Since my wife and I also have two daughters about the same age as he and his wife’s, the next thing I did was to call my own college-age daughters to let them know that their high school friend had died. Indeed, the charmed life that we who served in local church ministry seem to have in the congregation’s eyes was illusional on this day.
As the journey continued, we occasionally spoke but for the most part I reflected on the deep sadness that I myself still felt at the loss of one so young who had a second-natured smile reflecting a joyful faith. To be sure, the hope-filled memorial could not dissuade my forlorn countenance. In that moment, my sadness was more than for Newell and his wife, Colleen. I was sad for myself, knowing that no one is spared from the harsh side of providence. The parents were enduring the one thing that I feared most, submitting to the Lord’s will in losing one of my family. For the prior five years that we served on pastoral staff, I knew Newell and Colleen to each have a solid faith supported by a humble walk, worthy of the Lord’s blessings. As the two-hour trip progressed, there was little conversation. What encouragement could I offer that was not trite? Indeed, I was impaired by my own fears. If God asked Newell and Colleen to endure such a dreaded experience, then He could ask something equally hard of me, and if He did, I would be bitter. What good would it be for Newell to hear how a physician credited the Lord in early detection of my wife’s, Meredith, esophageal cancer four years before? His daughter’s body was in a grave, and I knew that my wife’s prognosis gave her only a 30 percent survival rate at the five-year mark. What the Lord had asked of Newell, I quietly wondered if He would ask the same of me. Was I there to study his faith to prepare me for my own test? I returned to my own hidden time of liminality, for you see, I knew that God was sovereign and I feared, rather than wondered, what He may bring.
When Mary heard that Jesus was approaching her village, she was not as willing to meet Him as was her sister, Martha. She had entered into her own liminality. Indeed, responding to the sisters’ plea for Jesus to come and heal their brother was neither heeded nor explained. Jesus did not even show for the funeral. Now that she was face-to-face with Jesus, Mary remained respectful but voiced aloud the same snappish statement that the two sisters must have obsessed over, the one she now pointedly asked, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” After restating the core belief that in Him was life, Jesus admonished the sisters for not expecting the impossible and then commanded, “Take away the stone” to the tomb’s entrance. At His command, Lazarus came forth. What the sisters could not have imagined became reality.
On a May morning, five weeks’ after the funeral for Newell and Colleen’s daughter, I arrived at the office unaware of an unfolding event. Colleen had received a call from a hospital staff about 180 miles away that at first was considered a hoax. The late night caller stated that they had reason to believe that a young girl in the hospital’s care could be their daughter and requested if dental records could immediately be obtained. “Their daughter? The one buried in the nearby cemetery?” What transpired during the night would soon make the front-page of major newspapers and newscasts around the world. As the staff arrived, we were asked to wait in the conference room for a telephone call. Listening on the speakerphone to the extraordinary mistaken identity of Whitney Cerak with another college student, we experienced in amazement what Mary and Martha must have felt when the bandaged wrapped Lazarus emerged from his tomb. I immediately called my family to meet me at home for an announcement. Upon arriving, my uncontrollable euphoria did not allow me to speak but only to utter the words, “It’s good news. Give me a minute” so as not to provoke fear.
When an experience from the short list intrudes, it is in the liminal state, this boundary time between the past and future, where you will wonder why. His silence itself would be difficult to endure if He had not already spoken in His Word. Think of Martha and Mary’s four-day wait. Think of Joseph, Daniel, and Job, who waited much longer; and with Moses who waited for forty years. Resist having your weak imagination deplete your faith of the robustness the Lord expects. Overcome fear of the future by taking the promises of Lord at face value and abide quietly in His love.
Note: Thanks for inspiration from Relient K for the title